He pulled up in the Octavia. We had tea and ham sandwiches then whiskey in the kitchen. Sunlight through the sycamores played over the dusty walls and everything was perfect.
‘You go home now, Helena, it’s enough for today.’ The girl had been helping me to clean up.
‘Not at all, it’s fine, I’ll just work away awhile.’ Thinking she’d gather some bullets in the dust for her mother’s armoury.
But I sent her off. She gave me the dirtiest look at the gate.
He was in great form. On his way back from the races. When the bottle was half drunk I said I’d give him a bath, if he liked.
That quietened him. He’d been doing the Irish playboy-bacchanalian routine, showing me the wad he’d won at Ballybunion, stashing it back fussily in his inside pocket. Showing me the condom he always carried too, in the same breast pocket.
‘Because you never know.’ He’d placed it a moment on the table, the tell-tale liver shape in blue metallic covering set there on the patterned tablecloth, between the glasses, the side plates becrumbed and mustard-smeared: a man straight out of the seventies, Esquire rolled up in The Irish Field under his arm; man with a winning horse and a condom always next to his heart.
He went to boasting then about his beekeeping and the young girlfriend pining for him in America, so beautiful and rich and yet…
The bath idea changed his mood. He wasn’t sure, thought I might be joking, glancing at me from behind the banter to test my deadpan expression. The front door ajar, there was birdsong outside, occasionally a car passing up towards the Gap, but a quietness growing inside. He looked pensive, curious as well, and a bit afraid. I looked through his comedy and saw the fear beginning to gather.
The room was settling into evening’s lowering, its leaf-play over the walls more like ripples on water. I ran a bath, talking to him from the lean-to bathroom. I said I’d been warming that tank all day and the water was perfect now.
When the big old tub was filled I led him in like a supplicant and removed his clothes as if they belonged to me. His skin, beyond the reddish neck and brown forearms, was blanched as almonds against jet-black body hair. His penis did not quite know what to do.
‘In you get,’ says I.
‘What about you?’ He began some pretence at unbuttoning my shirt that would of course lead to giggles then pretend exasperation before I’d do it myself. But I said, ‘Who said anything about me? After three days at the races your need is greater. In you get.’
He got in, descending another level of compliance, though the first note of objection was stamping at the gate, held back because of the lure still, what you might call the sexual stakes.
I set to work washing his hair; thinning, I saw, once I’d wetted it. How vulnerable is a man’s head in a woman’s hands when she sees his naked scalp beneath wet hair?
The room was pleasantly steaming, mirrors foggy, slug tracings across the glass delicate evidence of their meanderings at night. Only the sounds of the taps dripping now and then and my breaths as I laboured at the lathering of his hair, as well as his own breathing not daring to let pant. He looked down along his body, faintly blue beneath the water, knowing that I looked at it too, and at his floating penis and balls in their flotsam of jet, seeing the big thigh arteries coursing blue pathways towards bald white knees poking from black hair entanglements, on down to palest feet, huge white toes emerging at the end of it all.
‘You’re a gorgeous man,’ I told him. He laughed.
I used the blue striped jug from the kitchen to rinse the hair, set to work on his back and chest with lavender soap, lifting his arms, soaping his armpits. He fell in with my dominations, allowed me full command.
We chatted about London, where he’d been born, rehashing the early morning train pulling in to Euston from Holyhead years ago, its Irish load spilling forth, all that old stuff from the past habitual as I washed his hands, the web skin between his fingers and the same for his feet and toes. Moving then back up along his shinbones, thighs; the stomach with its river of hair to the navel and first soft warning of a paunch.
‘I’ll shave you now.’
He was in need of a good shave after three days at the races but I didn’t push it. ‘Stand so and I’ll finish you.’
At night I watch the sky from a window in my roof. Through the sycamores: stars, clouds, clear moons, clouded moons, stars—all passages of weather, season, planetary orbit.
Moon throws silver skeletons of shape down onto the wooden floor. Sometimes I bathe myself naked in mad change spilling out of those nights, my bone-white skin against hardwood ridges, the slashed gaps of tongue in groove against my arse, touching then my own sex, my small breasts and the moon passing overhead; seeing myself reflected in the glass, a girl in the moon’s eye, a moon-beamed photo of myself, seeing that, looking up at her, grimacing and crying out: ‘Beam me up you dirty aul fucker, why don’t you just do something instead of all the heavy silences and glidings by.’ That’s the kind of thing now, when I’m drunk alone and the moon is passing overhead.
‘There so,’ I said to him, ‘stand.’
I soaped him all around his nest and under. He was looking down at my hands.
I passed in beneath his scrotum, fingering his anus in passing, cradling his balls, cleaning them, then his risen prick which looked and felt unlovable somehow. It worked alright but it had a boyish, comical appearance, as though it was never really welcome on his body; as though it was always the stranger.
I cleaned it carefully. He was looking at me kindly, standing in the tub hands by his sides, shivering slightly now and again.
‘All done,’ I smiled. ‘Clean as a whistle.’
I dried him then, gave him back his clothes.
‘Cup of tea?’ says I.
Holding his trousers he started to get the message. His shadowy jaw line, brown eyes, slight raise of black eyebrows—all so strange to me; there was a man I was trying to conjure him into but it wouldn’t work. He wasn’t him, definitely not.
He laughed. ‘You’re some bitch,’ deadly serious beneath the laugh.
‘I’ll put the kettle on anyway. I could murder a cup. I’m as drunk as a pig.’
‘You’re a remarkable pig.’
The front door still open, we sailed through the twilight into summer’s night. We drank black tea to sober ourselves then went back to whiskey from small glasses. I’d candles lit. He smoked roll-ups one after the other. His neat ritual in rolling them paced our dual pursuit: whatever that illusive capture is that two people go after on such occasions. I put on the radio. There was music; I turned it up a bit.
He said no, he wouldn’t. He’d prefer to just sit and watch me.
Over by the bookcase in the corner, legs crossed, one arm propped on the table, he smoked industriously; roll-up cupped as though there was a wind or something to hide. In the candlelight parts of him seemed to grow smaller, backing into shadowy impenetrable tracts of night. Other parts of him were big, more alive by contrast in the yellow flickerings: his hand with the cigarette, the glossy high forehead and nose, the tip of one polished brown boot sickled upwards towards his shin as he wagged his foot gently in time to the music.
I danced watching him watching me or bumping into furniture. I’d my shoes off. The wood was warm from my feet rubbing the same spot in the middle where I shuffled, wearing the ground out from under me.
‘You’re a good dancer,’ he said sarcastically.
Sarah Keane came on then singing about small roads leading a person here and there. I stopped dancing to listen and by the song’s end tears were running. Just the silent outriders of drunken melancholia, a few sniffles then as the mucous membranes got involved.
‘Are you crying?’ He announced rather than asked, leaning across to saucer the stub of his fag.
He came to me then, stood very close, his hand heavy on my shoulder.
That was enough: the little flower of pity blossomed, put forth her tearful petals. I buried my face into his tweed jacket. He, of course, drew me to him, held me tight as if I’d asked him to, like in the films.
The music was all wrong though—a set of lively reels from Ritchie Kelly’s Catholic céilí boys—all jaunty accordion pip buttonings.
His jacket smelt of disappointment. I looked up to tell him, about to say, ‘Your jacket smells of tobacco and something sweet and disappointed.’
He met my face, lowered to it like a horse into its bucket, started kissing.
You can see my place on the ordnance survey map. It’s all about boundaries that map: small fields, threads of roads, streams, a bridge. Then a tiny matchbox shape that is mine: boundary of my domain. They use satellites for them. It looks like something on the map, my place. You can’t tell it’s just a bit of a hovel, a few stones piled one on another, held with mortar soft as cheese to mouse and rat, or that inside I am an anachronism, more so as the years drag on. Around it new houses gather: big fuckers, breeze-blocked fantasies all glass and show, encroaching on the small scale of my house’s century and my own. You couldn’t tell, either, (thankfully hidden from the satellite’s blank lens) that beneath this rectangle of roof a man and a woman were beginning the old dance, linking the rattling chain.
It’s not far from the ocean and across its span the satellite might show a certain shopping mall. In it a young American picks out a golfing sweater for her Irish boyfriend, although he’ll never play the game—she’d be better off buying him a slow horse he could back with certainty.
I said, ‘Take me from behind up against the door here.’
My front door, dilapidated portal to my domain, half-hung at best of times, open, mostly, though now closed against the black thrust of night in all its secretive antics. He did not have to be asked twice, as they say.
Luckily he still had the tweed jacket on so that the condom was easily retrieved, unwrapped and applied to the stranger boy, now reddish—the colour of our small mountains at sunset, but sad looking actually, bidden to his master’s purpose having no say in the matter, like a pious altar boy put to misdeeds below in the sacristy.
An announcer came on the radio for a sailing programme: ships and yachts and ketches, schooners and dinghies, all girl pronouns bravely voyaging. I told him to get a move on and after a good bit of fumbling and prodding he managed it somewhat and away we went.
Night was whiskey jittery, threatening hysteria. There were many things not in my mind: bees tucking into blossom, the perfect circles they trace withdrawing from a flower, entering another; the mornings to come, all of them, and my body alone in a white-painted iron bed in a white-painted room listening to trees moaning outside, their leaves lifted up by sea winds.
Nothing was in my mind but that I should spread and arch to receive a battering and should feel wood splintering my face, my hips the hard clout of another’s pelvis, the budge of his prick space-shifting deeper in.
Deep down in the hold, though, nothing could fill. Deep inside: nothing. A song might touch me, or a small road leading to nowhere, no utility, but perfect in its winding; all the gradient risings and fallings away, the satin linings of trees meeting overhead, sapling and bramble entwinements, honeysuckle with blood-droplet berries against the whole spectrum of green. That road’s emptiness might fill my own—if I could ever find such a road.
Up against my front door taking it: that’s where all my roads delivered me. ‘I hate you,’ I said, resisting his thrusts, he in his tweed jacket with his trousers down around his ankles.
‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,’ my chant followed the rhythm of his pounding, my face bumping in time against the doorframe. I could smell its sour, smoky odour, taste dirt. He was working away still, like he had his head in a different room, his hind quarters left behind in the stables.
‘I fucking hate you, fucking, fucking, fucking hate you.’
The roads tilting, roads hitting me, a car crash never finding any cease in the deadly occasioning of his poor altar boy responsorial thrusts—man of tweed and bees, Golden Virginia and bookies’ squanderings.
‘I HATE YOU, YOU FUCKER.’
He stopped. He withdrew. He stooped to deal with the altar boy. Bewildered, he pulled up his trousers.
I was in a heap then, weeping. ‘Here,’ he put a glass to my mouth. I swallowed the burn of a small mouthful. Here in this hot little house of the threadworm road he’d his head bowed trying to figure this one out. The candlelight was licking out of deep wells of molten wax throwing shadows of elongated pitch. Spiders reversed back into crevices as he sat back down, as his shadow too sat back down in his old place in the corner.
An Oscar Peterson number came on. I said I was sorry then.
He said it was all right and not to worry.
I said sorry again anyway.
He poured himself the last of the whiskey, one hand in his trouser pocket. He sat looking at the glass on the table as though it gave grounds for serious concern.
‘It wasn’t you,’ I said, ‘I was… you know..?’
I was breathing these big, sobbing, exhausted catch-breaths, faintly pleasurable because numb: everything feeling sodden and cleaned out after the riots.
I said I’d some problems with sex.
He looked up from the jewel gleaming in his glass.
I shrugged. A clock on the bookshelf behind his head ticked. On its face was a girl in a pink bonnet with a little pet duck that waddled side to side with meticulous timing.
‘It’s getting very late,’ I smiled.
‘Mmm.’ He picked up his tobacco as though to go. I noticed tufts of black hair on the backs of his hands.
I thought for an instant about Helena, the girl I’d sent home earlier; she was asleep in her bed no doubt, at this time of night.
‘Not too late for your girl in America though—she’ll only be waking up just. And thinking of you, no doubt.’
One of the candles snuffed out; the other wicks were burning angrily from puddles of wax in the table. Black-lettered titles on the books behind him bid to distract my attention with ridiculous information.
He started another roll-up, taking deep breaths, sighing on the exhalations, almost groans they sounded. He was like a cross parent deciding on the next course of action with some wearying offspring.
‘I’m going to tell you something,’ he whispered, ‘but it’s a secret. I’ve never told it to anyone, never.’ He looked at me. ‘You’ll be the first.’
I nodded, gave him the small brave smile to show I understood.
‘You’ll turn off the radio now please,’ he says, so I did. I pulled a cardigan around me, cold after the hysteria, and sat back down opposite him like the good girl I had become.
‘I was in prison once.’ He let the words settle in the quiet.
‘God, I’d never have thought that now, wouldn’t have figured it.’
‘Over in England,’ he said.
My little black and white cat came in from the bedroom as though to hear the worst.
She arched herself by his legs; he leaned to stroke her. ‘For long?’
He picked up the cat, doting her a while. She gave way to a low purring drone.
He’d his feet turned in towards each other, sitting so as to contain the cat comfortably in his lap, dappling her snow-white throat.
‘I murdered someone,’ he told her, looking into her eyes kindly, then at me too. ‘You did not,’ I blurted.
‘Eight years in British jails then they let me out to come home. Oh, yes,’ he told the cat, drawing up her head further, elongating her neck and fondling her to her delight.
Another candle gave up the ghost; I thought of switching on a light but couldn’t yet.
‘Self defence,’ he announced as though she’d asked him why.
‘Fella came up behind me. Coming out of a station one night—Walt-ham-stow, do you know that place?’ He’d her head cupped in his hand, pulled her up to meet his nose.
‘No one around. He comes from behind. Hits me hard, hits my head, back of my head,’ he felt the back of his skull, ‘with a hammer.’
‘I killed him then.’
He stretched out his hands, examining the long fingers, curved thumbs, the pale, smooth palms, turning them round slowly as though they were in a display case. The cat seemed fascinated by them too.
‘I was trained, you see, in the army. My hands, I’ve a black belt. I was trained and something kicked in.’ He was silent for ages. The cat started to clean herself and I was glad to watch her.
‘I caught hold of him, brought him down…’
I gave a little start.
‘… my own blood dripping onto him. I didn’t shed a drop of his. Only me that bled.’
Holding the cat close to his chest with his two hands so that she looked out from his body, from his tweed jacket, they both looked at me.
‘There’s a place in your neck,’ he used the cat to demonstrate, ‘a pressure point. If you know it you can kill anything. You just put a little pressure on.’ The cat yowled, trying to pull away. ‘It doesn’t take long actually. No force, only you have to know exactly where to squeeze.’
The cat was silent, her legs treading frantically, her eyes tight closed.
‘It’s the know-how, you see? Isn’t that it kitty, nice little kitty.’ He was looking hard at me, then he let her go and she shot away with an angry snarl and a cry of pain.
I got up all shaky, made for the door, far away and hard to get open. When I’d managed it the night came right up to me. When I opened the rickety slow door the night was waiting there, soot black, stifling.
I fell over groping for the sweeping brush.
‘You get out now.’ Bellowing from the floor I held up the brush as though I’d the winning ticket, and crawled out into pitch black, into the terrible anticipation of the night.
‘Get the fuck out of my house now, you.’ What else could I do but shout? I was ready to run but there was no point in that.
‘BASTARD,’ I roared.
When he did come out, dipping his head at the low sash, I held up the brush again, cowering back as he passed close.
‘Know where to press,’ he says.
He walked away and I was left there in the darkness missing him.